Australian politics, society & culture


Drugs are bad (part 2)

Panic about drugs has little to do with safety and a lot to do with moral prejudice

This is the second part of two-part article about the causes of our war on drugs. Read the first part here.

It’s not about risk. We know it’s not about risk, or harm, or deaths, or overdoses. Those could be almost eliminated immediately, if we wanted them to be. The Four Corners program last night which explored MDMA as part of a harm minimisation was praised for breaking new ground. It definitely produced some memorable reporting, but the conversation was the same. And ultimately, it remains the wrong one.

In the UK, David Nutt coined the term “equasy” as a way of comparing the risks of recreational MDMA use and horse-riding, and showing that horse-riding was much more dangerous. But in Australia we have something more common, and more dangerous still: rock fishing. Rock fishing is one of the most dangerous things you can do. It has a low morbidity, which means an accident results in almost certain death. CareFlight helicopters conducting fruitless searches are a regular sight off the cliffs of Maroubra and Malabar. Randwick Council alone saw six rock fishing deaths in just a two-year period between 2011 and 2013. Many rock fishers cannot swim, wear no safety equipment, and have only a vague idea of the potential lethality. It is mostly done alone, and has almost no almost no social or cardiovascular benefits. It exists only for the thrill of catching a big drummer in a big swell.

Even just a few individual rocks, infamous spots like Jolong and the Kurnell Doughboy, have claimed scores of lives between them. But fishing at these places is perfectly legal. They are not fenced, though they could be closed off with ease. You will not be frisked for lures on the way to the shore, or have sniffer dogs paw at your bait. In fact you’re not compelled to take any precautions at all. Despite coronial recommendations that life jackets be made compulsory, recreational groups and the Shooters and Fishers Party have resisted these measures. In the most lethal rocks of all, you may come across “shock” signage, translated into many languages. The signs keep a running tally of deaths in the area, complete with a skull and crossbones.

Imagine this situation transposed to dance parties: the state government advertising how many people have overdosed in the Hordern Pavilion, while Stereosonic fights legislation to make it mandatory to carry Powerade while pilling. It seems insane, but on a per capita risk basis it is much more logical than the current situation. So why is rock fishing a sport and drug-taking a crisis? A cynic might say the situation would be inverted if immigrants went dancing and teenaged girls went rock fishing. But it’s clear that hazard negotiation can’t explain why we deal with drugs the way that we do.

The way drugs are regulated in fact ensures that the risk is retained. There was a bus-ad series run not long ago as part of the National Drugs Campaign that tried to dissuade consumers by telling them ecstasy was MADE USING DRAIN CLEANER, BATTERY ACID OR EVEN HAIR BLEACH. THEN POPPED IN YOUR MOUTH. ECSTASY. FACE FACTS. Presumably drug manufacturers would be quite happy to use pharmaceutical-grade precursor agents if they could get them, but they can’t. This ad showed ecstasy being made in a filthy toilet, which seems like a strange place to run an expensive illegal lab, and a cheap way to make the drugs look extra disgusting. The toilet was dirty enough to suggest it was still being used. Perhaps there are some criminals stupid enough to shit on their own multi-million dollar enterprise, but it doesn’t seem very likely.

That toilet might seem like a clumsy prop in a scare campaign, but it’s really a very valuable piece of information about just how the drug war works, as it’s now constituted. Because when anti-drug campaigners say “drugs are bad”, their opponents don’t understand what they really mean. They think they mean “drugs are harmful”. But these people mean “drugs are bad” in same way we think that faeces is repulsive. It might be repulsive because it is linked to sickness, but it is also repulsive because it is inherently repulsive, and that status is enforced and ring-fenced by a whole series of taboos involving cleanliness, purity, corporeal integrity and social sanction. It is more than just a hygiene provision – it is how we constitute a shared communal reality, by deciding what is unclean.

It makes sense then, that the best predictor of someone’s views on recreational drug use isn’t their age, or their political affiliation, or their religiosity. It is their views on promiscuity. The researchers who first identified this linked it to evolutionary strategy. The idea is that people invest in the concept of monogamy to ensure their offspring are their own, then oppose drug-taking because it reduces sexual inhibitions. But that kind of ev-pysch rationale isn’t necessary. It can work from much more fundamental things: the conception of bodily integrity, or the idea that sinful behaviour should be its own punishment. That’s why trying to co-opt conservatives into a harm reduction strategy is waste of time: because they want drugs to remain harmful.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened when Gardasil, the anti-HPV vaccine, was invented. Around 70% of cases of cervical cancer could be ended with this simple, cheap drug. Ending these deaths in a generation is a program you would think everyone could get on board with. But there was a vocal constituency that bitterly opposed Gardasil. Our new deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, was among them. He warned about approving the vaccine due to “the psychological implications or the social implications”, and said that “there might be an overwhelming (public) backlash from people saying ‘Don’t you dare put something out there that gives my 12-year-old daughter a license to be promiscuous’.” Licensing, “sending a message”, permissiveness – you will notice the familiarity of this language. Barnaby Joyce is a moderate conservative, and also someone who sometimes argues that terminal cancer is a reasonable consequence of having sex. The wages of sin is death, and ought to remain that way.

There have been some victories in the war against the war against drugs recently. But most have left this system of taboos intact. In fact they have relied on it: instead of reclassifying illegal recreational drugs as legal stimulants like alcohol, these substances have instead been re-sold as medicines. Medicines are both “good” and “legal”, though no meaningful definitional difference between a medicine and a drug can be found. It says a great deal about our society that “euphoric mood” can be found next to “diarrhoea” on a list of undesirable side effects. Perhaps Thomas Macauley was right when he wrote that “the Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

This system will not easily be done away with. Alexander Shulgin was pessimistic about legalisation efforts: “That is the fibre of the social use of drugs,” he said in an interview towards the end of his life.

We have certain ones that we find acceptable. There are others that we make illegal. Other communities will rearrange the chips on the table of law in different ways. All of these materials have social redeeming value, including heroin and cocaine. On the other hand, we have built up an anti-drug picture with some being the evil ones and others being the accepted ones. And the insistence upon this dichotomous assignment is so much a part of our national self image, that I think the pattern is going to be hard to change.

Our national self image when it comes to drugs is based on hypocrisy. We combine very high rates of use with old-school, ineffective policing. Evidence-based policy like the injecting room in Kings Cross is notable mainly for its rarity. The New South Wales government has expressly disavowed pill-testing already. Because no evidence can shift the deep, unmovable knowledge that Drugs Are Bad, and should remain that way. The deaths, when they come, will serve not as tragedies, but as proof.

About the author Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is a writer, broadcaster and contributing editor to the Monthly.